Special Report: All hands on deck

The Veterans Benefits Administration is facing a perfect storm. Vietnam veterans are aging. Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are separating from the military, including an unprecedented number of National Guardsmen and reservists. Retired Brig. Gen. Allison A. Hickey took on perhaps the most daunting challenge in the Department of Veterans Affairs when she became undersecretary for benefits in June 2011. The American Legion Magazine recently talked with Hickey about her mission and the difficulty of providing VA benefits as the backlog of unresolved claims continues to grow.

What sort of demand for benefits does the VBA anticipate now that the troops are coming home?
Significantly increasing. Over the next three to five years, there will be about a million folks joining our rolls.

How is VA dealing with the surge of demand for benefits, from the GI Bill to disability claims?
From a GI Bill perspective, we’re in really great shape. We  have gone from an average of 60 days to do an original education claim down to – depending on the particular season – 24 to 30 days for servicemembers, veterans and beneficiaries. The VA home loan program has, right now, the single lowest foreclosure rate among all primes, subprimes and all others, and the lowest seriously delinquent foreclosure rate as well.

We have done more than 1 million (benefits) claims for two years in a row. Now, that isn’t a big deal and doesn’t sound good if you weren’t one of the ones that got done – and we totally understand that and don’t feel great about it. But what is important to note is that in the past 18 months, we have taken 37 percent of our highest tenured, most qualified, most capable workforce and directed them toward the Vietnam veteran and Agent Orange claims that came as a result of the three new presumptive conditions. Because of the complexity of those claims and 50 years of law, that took twice the normal workforce per claim. We adjudicated 260,000 claims in 18 months – absolutely, unequivocally, the absolute right thing to do by our Vietnam veterans, but there was an impact on the rest of our claims.

How soon are today’s young veterans filing for benefits?
The number of veterans who typically file in the first year has been about 20 percent ... I think we’re going to see the number who file in the first year go up. I am seeing an increase in individual unemployability claims. Vietnam-era veterans – if they hit 65 or so – we’re seeing an increase in their supplemental claims. We are seeing more claims from women. I’m seeing more military sexual trauma claims, and we have designed a brand-new process since I’ve been on board that specifically targets those claims – doing them right, with the right sensitivity and the right training.

What kind of benefits outreach is VA doing?
We did 6,300 outreach events across the nation – as well as overseas – in fiscal 2011. That’s hitting all of the Yellow Ribbon events, the demobilization sites, the National Guard drill weekends and family events with the Guard and reserve. Our online Transition Assistance Program – that’s another way we’re getting the word out. We are doing a lot with our claims folks at the new hiring events.

How are post-9/11 VA claims different than in the past?
The complexity and intensity of the claims. I call it the contention effect. World War II veterans came to us with one or two contentions: my back or my head hurts. Then our Vietnam veterans might have come home with three to four contentions per claim: my knee, my back, my PTSD. Today’s post-Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are coming to us with 11 to 14 contentions per claim. That’s not even our most wounded, ill and injured veterans. Those can be as high as 20 contentions per claim. Why? The good news is these men and women are coming back 10 times more likely to have survived. But they are coming back with many more contentions. 

How can VA slow the backlog of unresolved claims as application numbers grow and become more complex?
It’s all hands on deck – and that includes your men and women on the ground out there in The American Legion, and the state and county service officers. We need all of you to do whatever you can to help us get a fully developed claim from the start. This is crucial. It takes about 100 days to complete a fully developed claim. It takes 230 days, on average, to complete a claim that is not fully developed.

Where does the service officer fit into the equation?
(Legion service officers) are a critical capability for us. I just can’t build a VBA big enough to do all the lifting you all help us do every single day. It’s very, very important that all of our service officers across the nation who we partner with are really taking advantage of the training that I know the Legion mandates they do. A lot of our population has less than two years on the job. We learn a lot from you.

Is there a need for more trained service officers?
I think there is always a need for more. I would encourage you to bring more women on those rolls. I hear repeatedly from women servicemembers and veterans that they want to talk to a woman.